Skip to Content

Do literary novelists deserve public funding?

1 January 2018

The question of funding for literary fiction has been in the news recently and has attracted a range of different views, ranging from the feeling that literary publishers need this subsidy to be able to carry on, to Tim Lott's feeling that literary writers have lost the plot (literally).

Arts Council England has come up with a major funding award to set up an agency to help writers of literary fiction get published, with a special emphasis on writers from diverse backgrounds. What is a new departure about this is that it is not actually subsidising publishing, just the development of writers through an agency. Of course many agencies representing writers of literary fiction already exist as commercial ventures in both the UK and the US.

So what is new about this is the idea that an agency can create opportunities for writers that do not exist in the commercial publishing environment. Such an approach assumes that finding and grooming these writers will enable them to get published.

But what has actually happened in the literary fiction publishing environment over the last few years? Many would argue that, like other writers, literary writers are subject to the increasing focus on bestsellers. What has changed is that the bestselling culture relating to these writers relates strongly to literary prizes. Successful prize-winning authors have been scooping the jackpot, whilst other writers find it difficult to get published. Many literary novels are quiet affairs which do not attract attention or create controversy - Anita Brookner's Hotel du Lac would be very unlikely to win the Man Booker today.

But are these writers owed a living by society, which would justify subsidising them? And how do you decide which ones are worth investing in? To return to the subject of Tim Lott, there is also the argument he makes that literary novelists have lost their way and many of them no longer provide story and plot in their novels. Could this be a justified criticism and, if so, how can it make sense to subsidise books readers don't want to buy? Why should we subsidise writers who have lost the plot?

It would also be an ironic comment on the vast growth in creative writing courses of all kinds if many writers were emerging from them without the ability to create stories.